Last week I wondered what I was like as a child. I wanted to know what only someone outside of myself could tell me. I could just ask my parents, I thought. Then, No. No, I can’t, I remembered. I can’t ask my parents. I can ask Mom, but Dad is dead. I can’t ask him anything.
It’s been two and a half months now. But it still happens. I still forget. The impulse to call him strikes without warning and then fades just as quick. Because I remember, unwillingly, that my dad is dead and he won’t pick up the phone.
In the moments I’m aware, I can remember our last conversation. He’d woken abruptly and began to thrash and moan with whatever strength he had left inside of him. “Are you in pain?” I asked, stupidly. Of course he was in pain. His entire body was shutting down.
“Yes,” he answered.
Yes. That was the last word my dad ever said to me. Yes, he was in pain. My aunt gave him more medicine and he fell deep into his last living slumber. I never caught him conscious again and the next day, he died. It was March 7, and my brother’s thirty-fourth birthday.
By that point, two weeks into his final illness, I had accepted his fate. Still, I begged him not to go that day. I begged him not to turn the anniversary of my brother’s birth into the anniversary of his death. March 6. March 8. Just not March 7. Please, I begged. But my brother, always older and sometimes wiser, had already resigned. He’d accepted that date would be shared, not just hours, but days before it would become so.
My begging had been transformed to the specifics after my acceptance. Or whatever form of it I could muster. I still haven’t accepted now that he’s gone, let alone accepted that he would die as the doctors and nurses told us he would. The brain and the heart simply can’t comprehend such a thing. But somewhere along the way, my begging had changed, and I began negotiating. Those first few nights, my stance had been completely non-negotiable. I stayed, you stay. I cried those words for hours every night. I survived my suicide attempt, you can survive this. I can get better, and you can get better. We can do this together. You stay, I’ll stay.
I can’t call him now. In this moment, I know that. And I try my damndest to make peace with the relationship we had. At times we were too alike to even face each other. Still, I cried and shook in the corner of his small hospital room one night. “I should’ve called him more.”
Every time I did, he’d say, within those first few moments, “I meant to call you earlier.” But he hadn’t and I’d bitch about those recurring words to my mom. He meant to call me. He always means to call me. And I’d bitch about the six o’ clock phone call I got on holidays. He always waits until the day is over. It would be nine p.m. in New York, compared to my early evening hour in California. But I knew why he had waited. He had good reason to wait. In my early years of living three hours behind, I’d be busy or just wouldn’t answer for some God forsaken reason. So on holidays, he waited until he thought I’d be free. Still, I bemoaned over it. But then six o’ clock came and went this past Easter, and it did so without a phone call.
Living not just three hours behind, but twenty-five hundred miles away, has given me the ability to build onto the wall I’ve always had, making it taller and thicker. When my mom shares bad news via text message, often I simply say Okay in return. I take my time to process it and then reach out when I find the courage to.
My dad had slipped on the ice and broken his leg on Thursday, February 20. That day had been hell for a slew of reasons and I was an emotional wreck. So I waited until Sunday to call him. But with my brother at his bedside, he’d been sedated by the same anti-anxiety medication that forced me unconscious three weeks earlier, the day of our last phone conversation.
It was Sunday, February 2 and I’d been given Ativan to ease my anxiety. I was at the Sherman Oaks Hospital recovering from my Thursday night suicide attempt. Physically, I was on the mend and suitable for release, but mentally, well, I’d just swallowed four bottles of pills and apparently couldn’t be trusted to keep myself alive. The Ativan was to lessen the anxiety of being placed on a 5150 hold and informed I’d be transported to a mental recovery center later that night. Fortunately, my dad had called before my short-lived sedation.
I remember nothing of our phone call, only that we had it. I don’t remember what he said, and I don’t remember what I said. Was I bothered that, like I had three weeks later, he waited until Sunday to call after a Thursday incident? (Mind you, I did not regain consciousness until late Friday morning.) Honestly, I don’t know. I have vague memory of bitching about it later to my mom. But that Sunday in my hospital bed, bothered or not by his tardiness, I felt grateful to hear his voice. That I do remember. Because I survived. I stayed. And I had no idea he wouldn’t.
My dad’s consciousness and awareness came and went those last two weeks of his life. Sometimes his mind was slipping; other times, he was crisp and alert. He sang and made jokes and rambled on about things we couldn’t understand. His speech had been altered to the point of unintelligible slurs. But when the moment was right, when all aspects of his health aligned for a small sliver of time, I was able to understand his words. And in one of those brief shining moments, he told he how much he appreciated me. He understood that I had dropped all of my responsibilities in California to be with him in New York. It no longer mattered how often we called each other. Because that was then, and this was now. He appreciated me. He was grateful for my presence. I was there, day in and day out, as he readied for his transformation. And when he finally made it, leaving this world for a place without a telephone, I was there to hold his hand.
Maybe he couldn’t stay, but I can, I remind myself. Or at least to him, I promised I would try.